Why do people self-sabotage?

The column below, Why do people self-sabotage, by Dr. Lynn Friedman, was originally published on the DC Web Women site

Ever wonder why people engage in seemingly self-destructive behavior? That is, why do people do things that appear to be against their best interests? Why do they continue to engage in troublesome behavior even though it consistently leads them into a state of utter misery? We’ve all seen this in our friends, colleagues, and even, regrettably, in ourselves.

For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • The friend who always chooses dead-beat partners – Ever wondered why your best friend, who’s very bright and outstanding in her field, always chooses “dead-beat” partners? While her unemployed partner relaxes and “lives high off the hog”, she’s industriously working, paying living expenses and taxes for two. Eventually, she questions the wisdom of her ways and jettisons her intimate only to replace him/her with a “look-a-like”. To everyone else, the warning signs are apparent, but she’s oblivious to them. Why can’t she see what is transparent to those closest to her?


  • Your colleague toils long hours for low pay while the boss is out establishing his consulting business. And, what about your smart and talented colleague with unique skills? Why does she always end up underpaid and overworked? She confides that she would like to find another job, but she feels it would be disloyal to cut back on her 80-hour work week to make time to pursue that goal. So, she subordinates her own goals and ambitions to the “higher goal,” while her derelict boss is out developing his consulting business. Although she sounds angry, she seems unaware of her growing resentment.


  • You’ve been wanting to lose 20 pounds for 10 years, to no avail.  Or, what about you? You have been saying that you want to lose 20 pounds for 10 years, yet somehow you find that you are never able to adhere to a wellness regimen. You don’t like the way you look, and you don’t like the way you feel. You are concerned about health risks, but something stops you from successfully adhering to your fitness program.


  • You are chronically late with your taxes.  Or what about your love/hate relationship with your taxes? Every year, you show up at your accountant’s office on April 13th, swearing that you will be on time next year. It never happens. What gets in your way? Why do you continue to create this unpleasant and anxiety-producing state of affairs?


  • You can’t say “no”. – What about your difficulty saying “no”? It’s so hard for you that you end up satisfying the demands and needs of others while your own needs go unfulfilled. What stops you from developing a healthy sense of entitlement?


  • You are an inveterate procrastinator. – You are a perennial procrastinator. This behavior makes you unhappy, but you can’t seem to organize yourself to get things done in a timely fashion. What is really interfering with your ability to get things done?


  • You have difficulty effectively setting and achieving work-life goals. You know that your life isn’t going the way that you had envisioned. Neither your work-life nor your love-life are ideal, yet you can’t seem to figure out what you want and how to go about pursuing it.

Why do people self-sabotage?

Why do people engage in self-limiting or seemingly self-destructive behaviors? How can these behaviors be understood? And, more importantly, how can they be mastered?

How can these “symptoms” be understood?

We derive some benefit from our seemingly troubling behavior. That is, “symptoms” or “issues” can be construed as both “maladaptive” and “adaptive”. At first glance, symptoms look maladaptive, but closer scrutiny reveals that in some way, the individual “benefits” from them. That is, in some way the individual is protected by her “symptoms”. In effect, the “symptoms” represent a solution to a problem, albeit a far-from-ideal solution.

The maladaptive aspects of “unwanted” behaviors are easy to recognize. For example, the overweight person can readily identify the risks associated with obesity. Similarly, the individual who selects dead-beat partners is well aware of the unhappiness associated with these “choices.”

In contrast, the adaptive features of these behaviors are more obscure even to the individuals themselves. Often they can’t explain the “real” reasons for their behavior because the reasons are outside of their conscious awareness. In fact, if they were aware of what motivated their behavior, they could probably change it. Thus, the presence of a symptom signals that the individual has an underlying conflict.

The overweight person may be conflicted about taking the time required for an effective wellness program. That is, she may feel that she must subordinate her own needs to the needs of everyone (children, partners). Alternatively, she may feel that weight loss will bring her into the limelight and she may be uncomfortable with that exposure. Or, she may be concerned that a weight loss might make her more attractive and that she will be beckoned into the frightening realm of intimacy. She may be afraid that she will repeat the unhappy marriage of her parents, or she may be apprehensive about some aspect of her sexuality. In this case, weight loss might truly be terrifying. Consequently, she “hides out” in her body.

The woman who is drawn to dead-beat partners may be unaware of what drives her behavior. In fact, often when women like this one were children, they were discouraged from expressing their needs. That is, they were criticized for complaining or crying. And, when they did express unhappiness, this expression did not lead to the changing of the situation. Since their opinions and feelings had no impact, they learned not to express them; in fact, oftentimes, they learned not to “tune in” to them at all. Therefore, in choosing partners they may be navigating without important skills: they may be unaware of how they feel and thus unaware as to how to set appropriate limits. Therefore, they may be vulnerable to be taken advantage of by others. Without the ability to identify their feelings, they lack a vital compass with which to guide their relationships.

Most people find the notion that all behavior, no matter how self-destructive, has an adaptive function difficult to grasp. So, how do you go about learning more about the advantages to maintaining your current (purportedly unwanted) situation? A first step is to examine the advantages to maintaining the status quo. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.

Worksheet for Conceptualizing Self-sabotage, Symptoms: Maladaptive Aspects

  1. Describe a longstanding difficulty with which you have struggled. Describe the ways in which it is maladaptive. How does this difficulty hurt you or hold you back or make you unhappy? What is its impact on your relationships at work, at home, and socially?
  2. Have you attempted to change this difficulty? If not, why not? If so, describe the nature of your efforts?
  3. In what ways have your efforts been successful? If they have been unsuccessful, why?
  4. In what ways have your efforts been thwarted? How were they sabotaged?

Worksheet for Conceptualizing Self-sabotage, Symptoms: Adaptive Aspects

  1. Now focus on the adaptive aspects of the longstanding difficulty. As strange as these questions seem, try to answer them.
  2. How is this difficulty adaptive? What are the benefits? Who are the beneficiaries? That is, how might lovers, friends, family, and coworkers benefit from it? How might you benefit from it?
  3. What aspects of yourself does it allow you to avoid?
  4. Who would experience a loss if the “symptom” were eliminated? Describe the loss. What would its impact be?
  5. How would you be forced to grow and mature if the “symptom” were eliminated? That is, in what ways would you be forced out of your comfort zone?
  6. How would others be forced to grow and mature if the “symptom” were eliminated? How would they be helped or hurt by the elimination of your symptom?
  7. If you achieve your goal or eliminate your symptom, how would your life be different? Would it be more populated with people? More isolated? Busier? More lonely? More leisurely?
  8. How would your lifestyle change?
  9. How would your friendships be affected?
  10. How would key people in your life react? Would they be pleased? Would they be envious? A bit of both?
  11. What would your parents think about it (answer this even if they are no longer alive).
  12. If you are partnered, what would your partner think about it? How would your partner feel about it?
  13. What would your children think about it? How would they feel about it? How would they be affected?
  14. As a function of this change, who would be more likely to enter your life? Who might leave it?
  15. What difficult or frightening situations would you have to confront?
  16. How can these “symptoms” be overcome and mastered?

The questions above provide you with a framework for thinking about the meaning of a puzzling symptom. At first blush, these questions seem ludicrous to many people. However, over time, they begin to make sense. Answering these steps can be a wonderful beginning to changing an unwanted behavior or situation. Talk your fears over with a trusted friend. Develop a plan for overcoming your “symptom”. Give yourself a timeframe for overcoming your “symptom” or achieving your goal. If after your most assiduous efforts, you are unable to take any of these steps, consider seeking psychoanalytic psychotherapy from an experienced clinician. We know enough about psychodynamics and unconscious motivations that most symptoms can be understood and effectively addressed.

If you are seeking evaluation, psychodynamic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, here, in Washington, DC, feel free to reach out to me at: 301.656.9650.

Dr. Lynn Friedman

Dr. Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., FABP, is a Clinical Psychologist, a Supervising and Training Analyst, and a Clinical Supervisor in full-time, private practice. She provides evaluation, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as supervision to psychoanalysts-in-training and other mental health professionals. Beyond this, she is a board certified, psychoanalyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

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